Notes and Editorial Reviews
As a Mahler interpreter, his performances are exciting, fabulously played, razor-sharp rhythmically, and sensitive to the myriad details of Mahler's scoring. He has terrific vocal soloists...Artistically, though, this is about as good as it gets, and it's a pleasure to welcome this set back into circulation.
Had James Levine finished his Mahler cycle with Nos. 2 and 8 it might well have been the finest available. Rehearing these performances it's amazing just how competitive they still are. Certainly Nos. 3-6 and 9 stand with the finest available, and Nos. 1 and 7 aren't far behind. Only does No. 10 sound oddly disengaged, partly the result of the denatured digital recording of the last four movements (the opening Adagio was recorded earlier in analog). Levine's recent Mahler has become much slower and heavier than what he offers here, so this set has to be considered one of the Mahler discography's great "might have beens."
Still, this doesn't diminish the value of what Levine actually gave us. As a Mahler interpreter, his performances are exciting, fabulously played, razor-sharp rhythmically, and sensitive to the myriad details of Mahler's scoring. He has terrific vocal soloists--Judith Blegen in the Fourth and Marilyn Horne in the Third--but seems not to like cowbells very much in the Sixth and Seventh. Perhaps the two standout performances are the Fifth and Ninth, as much for the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra as for Levine's intense interpretations.
The sonics were always wildly variable. Remastering has helped, but the percussion in the Sixth is still too far forward, and the Seventh was an early digital nightmare. It's listenable now, but still no engineering prize. The total absence of notes and sung texts is inexcusable. Artistically, though, this is about as good as it gets, and it's a pleasure to welcome this set back into circulation.
Mahler 1st Symphony from this set:
“This Mahler First, certainly one of the freshest and most vibrant performances, but one that also tends to get lost in the shuffle. The playing of the LSO is terrific: the scherzo bids fair to be the best on disc, but then Levine seems unusually energized and spontaneous throughout...this is an outstanding performance in all other respects, and moreover one that will sound well on iPods, in cars, and in all of those places where soft passages tend to vanish annoyingly in a welter of ambient noise. It certainly deserves to remain available.”
– David Hurwitz,
Mahler 4th Symphony from this set:
“A lot of Mahler 4s have come and gone since this 1974 release, but its musical values remain undiminished. It finds both James Levine and the Chicago Symphony at the absolute peak of their form, and that's really saying something. This performance has everything: incredible precision in the first movement (especially the central development section), a nicely spiky scherzo, a broadly sung and soulful adagio rising to a glorious climax, and a terrific soloist for the finale in the person of Judith Blegen. There's really not much more that needs to be said, other than that the current remastering sounds extremely vivid and close up, even a touch bright, but perfectly acceptable. A generation of Mahler lovers imprinted on this performance, and it's great that a new legion of fans will now be able to do the same--and at mid-price too. .”
– David Hurwitz,
Mahler 5th and 7th Symphonies from this set:
"I am not sure that James Levine's Mahler is appreciated so fully as it ought to be. His recording of Symphony No. 7 (RCA—nla), perhaps the most difficult of the set to bring off, is a magnificent achievement and some might think that he is superior in the finale even to Abbado in his recent Chicago recording on DG. This reissue of No.5 is first-rate in every respect. As an interpretation it falls only just short of Barbirolli's classic HMV account (SLS785, 12/69) in the reconciliation of structure and emotional intensity, the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra (particularly its brass and woodwind soloists) is truly amazing and the recording is bright, warm and well-balanced.
Levine's attention to Mahler's markings, especially the dynamics, is scrupulous but never sounds mechanical or contrived. The first two movements are full of tension, tragic and furious by turns, as they must be if the sunlit triumph of the finale is to shine forth as it should. The playing and recording of the flute's final passage in the first movement followed by the lower strings' pizzicato may be only a small example, but they are symbolic of the vividness of the whole interpretation. Again, in the second movement, the pizzicatos are thrilling, and the cellos' tone is ravishing. Only superlatives will suffice, too, for the performance of the scherzo, the blending of the horn obbligato with the woodwind most beautifully judged. I do not find Levine's tempo in the AAdagietto at all too slow, The pulse never falters and the line of the melody is never stretched beyond coherence. Wieder dusserst langsarn ('again extremely slowly") Mahler directs after the first statement of the theme, and Levine obeys him, with a magical differentiation between p and pp throughout. When it comes to the finale all the threads are drawn together in a thoroughly convincing way and the big build-up to the victorious chorale steers well clear of bombast."
-- M. K., Gramophone [8/1985]